WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Transportation on Wednesday announced steps to improve the safety of shipping crude oil by rail, but unlike its Canadian counterpart, it is taking a voluntary approach to the phase-out of older tank cars long known to be vulnerable in derailments.
The department recommended that petroleum producers that ship by rail discontinue the use of older DOT-111 model tank cars. The National Transportation Safety Board has warned for years that the cars punctured easily in derailments, leading to spills and fires with flammable liquids.
The cars have performed poorly in the past several years in derailments involving ethanol, and more recently crude oil.
But like other efforts since the beginning of this year involving train speeds, track inspections and routing decisions, DOT’s tank car recommendations are not mandatory. In contrast, Transport Canada two weeks ago required a three-year phase-out of older tank cars.
The department did match Canada’s requirement that railroads disclose to state and county emergency management officials the routing, volume and frequency of crude oil shipments.
After a CSX train carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire in Lynchburg, Va., last week, the city’s mayor said he wasn’t aware that the shipments had been passing through his community every day since December.
Railroads are not required to disclose detailed information on hazardous materials shipments to state and local officials. But multiple rail accidents involving crude in the past several months have put pressure on the industry and its regulators.
Last week, the same day of the Lynchburg derailment, the department sent a package of proposed regulations to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review.
The process can take at least 90 days, and until it’s complete, the details will not be made public.
For community and environmental activists who have been pushing for more aggressive action from DOT, Wednesday’s announcement was a disappointment.
“Without a mandatory requirement and a strict timeline, it doesn’t do the job,” said Phillip Musegaas, Hudson River Program Director for Riverkeeper, a river conservation group.
Lawmakers expressed some skepticism as well.
“I’m concerned that calls for action without clear guidelines won’t actually do much to improve safety,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.
Heitkamp’s home state has become the nation’s No. 2 producer of crude oil behind Texas, thanks to hydraulic fracturing of shale rock. The nation’s vast rail network has enabled the fast expansion of North Dakota oil production.
But neither industry nor regulators prepared for the danger of moving large quantities of a highly flammable liquid through populated areas and along sensitive waterways in less-than-adequate tank cars.
Before the Lynchburg derailment, trains carrying crude oil had derailed in Quebec, Alabama and North Dakota since last summer, resulting in large spills and fires. The derailment of a crude oil train in Quebec killed 47 people. The Alabama and North Dakota derailments spilled a combined 1.2 million gallons of crude - more than the total spilled in rail accidents for almost 40 years.